The Criterion Collection: A Retrospective in Five Films

 

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Please read the previous five reviews on my blog for: Harold & Maude, Persona, The Darjeeling Limited, Dazed and Confused, and Sisters. These five film reviews are the supporting components for this essay.

 

The Criterion Collection has dedicated itself to gathering the most influential pieces of cinema ever made. Updating their collection monthly they remain on the cutting edge of cinema, adding classic and modern cinema to their repertoire to keep a constantly updated collection of influential movies. Ranging across a wide range of genres, the Criterion Collection has collected films that have been revered by critics, have gained cult status, or are seen as influential within the world of cinema and its creation.  I originally started with five different films than the one’s I ended up watching. This just speaks to the sheer volume that the Criterion Collection is made up of. Regardless if a film is currently in rotation or not, it’s still considered a part of the collection. I also learned that the only thing standing in the way of a lot of films getting added to the collection is disputes over distribution rights, which is why viewers don’t get as many animated films as people would like.

In my analysis, I viewed the films Dazed and Confused directed by Richard Linklater, Harold & Maude directed by Hal Ashby, Persona directed by Ingmar Bergman, The Darjeeling Limited directed by Wes Anderson, and Sisters directed by Brian De Palma. These films make up only a sliver of the massive catalog that Criterion has in their stock. These films offer a wide range of what the collection has to offer from cult classics to art-house thrillers to outright horror. I picked a range of films from different genres and decades to get a view of what makes the Criterion Collection classify as a critically important film in the canon of cinema.

Let’s start with the cult classic Harold & Maude, which is a heart-warming film. It’s inclusion in the Criterion Collection is without question upon viewing, however it at first seems to be an odd choice. Criterion is not one to take things upon first glance, by putting it in the collection they must’ve seen something important in it. This low-budget dramedy has some incredible shots, has a fantastic script, and best of all it’s funny. Criterion clearly defines cult classics as influential cinema due to their word-of-mouth hype, which can often be more powerful and accurate than any critic. This film being added to the collection is a testament to all independent filmmakers that just because no one has heard of your film, doesn’t mean it’s a failure.

The next thing I decided to tackle was a strict genre film. So I watched a film entitled Sisters. I chose this film as it fit into the genre of horror, and as it’s a genre that often lacks respect from most movie goers, I was curious at to why it would be in the collection. I quickly found out when my screen split into two. Criterion keeps an eye out for radical cinematic techniques. The split-screen effect in Sisters is clearly the main draw to the film (as well as generally being well made) and it’s wildly successful in execution. The Criterion Collection doesn’t discriminate against genres, it’s definitely an organization that just looks for talent and creativity.

Criterion also continuously adds films to its repertoire for example The Darjeeling Limited was released in 2007 but is still a part of the collection. This is due to the absolutely stunning color palette of the film. While I personally find the film to be appropriative of Indian culture, it doesn’t change the fact that movie is fantastic to look at. The importance of the film lies in its technique rather than its content in this particular example.

I had to do a double-take when I was scrolling through the list of the movies in the collection when I saw Dazed and Confused. I thought it was it just another high school movie. I was incredibly, stupidly wrong. The movie is a testament to youth, growing up, and leaving your hometown. It’s funny and most of all it’s poignant monologs  always give you something to think about and above all else, it feels realistic. This movie deserves its place in the collection because it is astoundingly good for its genre and content. It’s further proof that the Criterion Collection doesn’t care what your movie is about, it only cares if the movie is good, well made, or brings something new to the table.

I chose a classic for the last film to view; Persona. Ingmar Bergman’s film is a fabulous romp through two different realities and personalities. It’s a mind-bender of a thriller and its tense until the very last scene. My theory as to why it’s in the collection is due to its editing and controversial nature. The film was very controversial upon its initial release due to its explicit description of a woman having intercourse with a young boy. It’s a disturbing scene that’s for sure, but once you look past this tidbit you see a film that edits you into the reality of the film. You as a viewer are a conscious part of the movie, as Bergman continuously references that these characters are within a movie.

The Criterion Collection does not care what your movie is about, it doesn’t care if everyone hated your movie, it doesn’t care if everyone loved your movie. Your movie could have made millions of dollars, one every award, and it still might not end up in the collection. However, if your film brings something new to the table, something that takes viewers aback, then maybe your film is worthy of being included. All of the films I watched to figure out what Criterion describes as a good film point to one thing: uniqueness. There is something individual about each film that I watched that I’ll never forget. The burning out of the celluloid in Persona, the doll house like train compartment scene in The Darjeeling Limited, the split-screen technique in Sisters, the cemetery shot in Harold & Maude, and finally the characters in Dazed and Confused. The Criterion Collection looks for films that you will remember, films that bring new things to the table, and films that flawlessly execute their technique.

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“The Hateful Eight” shows Tarantino losing his edge

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(from Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight)

With “The Hateful Eight,” Quentin Tarantino brings viewers back to what made him popular to begin with: a singular room and dialogue-based action.

Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), John Ruth (Kurt Russell), Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) meet along the trail to a cabin called Minnie’s Haberdashery. They bring together four sets of viewpoints and morals.

Tarantino takes these four characters and puts them in an area where they can’t escape each other and must converse. Conversation moves at a quick pace that creates an automatic sense of urgency. With a stagecoach full of clashing personalities and opinions, repartee quickly ramps up in intensity. Tarantino proves himself to be a master of orchestrating tense discussion as his characters pick each other apart and begin to form unspoken alliances that will be tested later.

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(Daisy Domergue played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight)

The first hateful four eventually meet up with Bob (Demián Bichir), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). All eight withhold their true nature and intentions, creating a taught, twist-filled mystery that lasts throughout the film. Tarantino creates a time bomb with the setting, waiting for the match to get close enough to the powder keg to let out all of the secrets of this snowed-in crowd.

“The Hateful Eight” proves that Tarantino can get away with whatever he feels like. There isn’t a single shot in the film that isn’t undoubtedly his own. Gore galore toward the end of the movie evokes the bloody half-hour fight in “Kill Bill,” the tight setting calls back to “Reservoir Dogs” and the timeline makes leaps similar to those seen in “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill” and “Jackie Brown.”

This movie is typical Tarantino: The focus is on the action that the viewer is shown, but the real game changer is always happening elsewhere. The director makes clear that just because the audience thinks they know what’s going on doesn’t mean that is where the story is going at all. Logic is both the failure and the savior multiple times throughout the movie. When characters think they have their allies and enemies figured out, the truth is often the opposite.

Tarantino ultimately misuses the 70mm film and Ultra Panavision 70 cameras he talked about so much in the time leading up to the film’s release. The film and lenses he used are perfect for large landscape shots and sweeping vistas, but most of the movie is set indoors.

Those special cameras allow for larger shots of the interior of the Minnie’s Haberdashery – the lens captures the entirety of the smaller space. This permits the viewer to witness most everything that’s happening, and when there are plot points happening off screen they are hinted at in the wide shots. However, the Ultra Panavision camera should have been used for what it does best – framing massive landscapes in impressively wide shots.

The director’s eighth effort offers what audiences have come to expect from him. It features buckets of blood, its dialogue is flawless, its battles are focused on wit and the viewer never gets the full story until it all comes together at the end.

Tarantino will take the viewer back to the beginning of the story to tell us more about what’s going on and what we missed – a trick he’s employed in his movies before. It’s effective, sure, but it also feels like old hat for him at this point. He should be pushing boundaries, not simply recycling elements that made his older films masterpieces.

“The Hateful Eight” is by no means terrible – it’s equally well-shot and well-written – but the film is just not good enough to be worth its exhausting three-hour runtime. Any Tarantino fan will likely sing its praises, but it lacks the bite that the director’s older films have.

I went into “The Hateful Eight” expecting innovation from Tarantino, but sadly it feels as if he’s merely mining old territory in an attempt to repeat what once made him so successful.